2023 has already been a historic year for education reform. Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, and Florida established new broad eligibility education savings account programs, joining West Virginia and Arizona in the promising experiment. According to Dr. Matthew Ladner, once these programs are phased in, the parents of roughly six million children–about 12 percent of the nation’s students–will be eligible to take direct control of their children’s school funding.  

Policymakers are responding to growing parental demand for better education options, which has increased after the pandemic and widespread school closures. But I can’t help but wonder if more parents and concerned citizens would be calling on lawmakers to expand education choice if they had real transparency about K-12 public schools’ performance.

For a forthcoming paper for FREOPP, I researched the state of academic transparency in American K-12 education.

While federal law requires states to test students annually and report results to the public, many states aren’t following federal guidelines or reporting information in a timely manner. For example, more than half of the states released their test results more than 100 days after the state testing window had closed. In some states, the results were not public until the fall, when students were already back in school. For example, in Texas, the state education agency published these “school report cards” for the 2021-22 school year on January 19, 2023, after students had been in school for more than four months.

Moreover, most states did not publish information in a way that is useful for the public. For example, an analysis by Education Reform Now found that:

As of December 20, 47 states (including DC) reported their 2022 assessment results in the form of a table or spreadsheet. These raw spreadsheets contain massive amounts of data that take up a great amount of computing capacity and are often poorly organized, making it difficult for parents and other stakeholders to make sense of.

The lack of timely and transparent public reporting about state test results denies the public the opportunity to understand how public schools are performing. Moreover, delaying the release of this data prevents third-party services, such as academic centers like Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project and nonprofit organization’s like Great Schools, from updating their analysis and services for their users.

Congress is right to investigate

The states’ failure to follow federal law has raised bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. In December, Congress included the following reporting requirement in the explanatory text for the FY2023 Omnibus funding bill:

State and local Report Cards–The Department is directed to, not later than 6 months after enactment of this Act, submit to the Committees and to the Committees of Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of the Senate and of Education and Labor of the House of Representatives a report outlining actions taken to bring States into compliance with all ESEA annual reporting requirements, particularly for those States that have yet to come into full compliance with such requirements; common implementation obstacles facing States in complying with such requirements; and efforts to improve the accessibility, quality, and utility of this information.

Congress is right to demand explanations why states are not following the law and providing transparent information about public schools’ performance. Their reasoning might have something to do with American students’ historic learning losses following school closures during the pandemic, particularly since those effects were most acute among disadvantaged children.

This spring, American public school students will spend considerable time taking state tests. States and school districts have a responsibility to provide results of those tests in a way that gives parents the knowledge they need to evaluate how their schools are performing.

Ideally, parents should have that information to be able to choose the right school for their children. At a minimum, parents and the public deserve the reporting about school performance as required by federal law.

Students aren’t allowed to hide their report cards from their parents. States and public school districts shouldn’t be allowed to hide their report cards either.